Video and Mobile Games and Neuroplasticity: What is the Connection?

By weigner, 7 January, 2016
Video and Mobile Games and Neuroplasticity: What is the Connection? Video and app games and brain development

The Issue

The issue of children and teenagers playing video games or mobile app games is still a very controversial one, with psychologists and parenting experts still trying to understand what works and what doesn’t. As recent reports showed, mobile screen time starts early and is detrimental to toddlers. On the other hand, as the child grows, it is almost impossible to keep them away from the PC, tablet or smarthphone. In a world dominated by video and mobile app games as a major source of entertainment for adults and children alike, one question begged to be asked: “do video and mobile games have a positive impact on peoples’ cognitive skills, or do they indeed melt their brains?”

The positive impact of games on children’s intellectual development is not a new theory, as since kindergarten children are encouraged to play all sorts of games. Based on Piaget’s theories, group games are an important part of kids’ activities since the early age. Learning games, board games and individual play make the foundation of every child’s healthy development. The educational value of games has always been connected to cognitive skills development (memory formation, spatial navigation, strategic thinking, fine motor skills, attention, language development and so on). In other words, if games are an essential component in a child’s brain development, why can’t video and mobile app games play the same role?

The Science

Recent research showed that children and teenagers playing video and mobile app games have a better shot at neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons in the brain) and neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to develop new connections, as it is malleable and sensible to changes). In other words, kids who play video games are more likely to develop new brain cells and have an increased connectivity between different brain regions, usually associated with memory, language, attention, spatial intelligence and fine motor skills (Video Gaming Can Increase Brain Size and Connectivity, Psychology Today, 2013).

In 2014, the American Psychological Association published an article looking deep into the connection between dyslexic children and video games. Dyslexia experts teamed up neuroscientists to develop together “neuroplasticity-based computerized video games that can "rewire" the brains of children with this form of dyslexia and activate those areas of the brain critical to reading skills.” (Undoing Dyslexia via Video Games, APA, 2014). This type of “rewiring” is in full accordance with the neuroplasticity theory: our brains are capable to change the way they work, find new connections, link different brain areas together in order to adapt to a new challenge or a new environmental change.

The open-source article in Nature (2015) – Enhanced functional connectivity and increased gray matter volume of insula related to action video game playing – makes another valid point: since distinct brain regions are associated with particular neural networks which are in turn connected to particular brain functions, playing a video game which addresses these particular cognitive skills leads to the facilitation and the enhancement of neuroplasticity in the afferent brain regions and neural networks.

In other words, by learning and practicing challenging skills, our brains can remain in better shape and even grow. Therefore, the 86 billion neurons that are part of the brain can survive for longer periods of time if kept active by reducing cognitive decline. These cognitive tasks are made of spatial perception, perceptual discrimination, visual search, recall and recognition.

So how can one keep his mind sharp? How can we improve our memory, attention, language skills, critical thinking, strategic planning and problem solving with the help of video or mobile app games?

A Tower Defense video game has been found to have a positive impact on children’s Math skills development in an innovative manner. This game allows people to test mathematical theories and work with variables. Introducing such video game in the classroom brings a new level of novelty in teaching and attracts children and teenagers to see a Math lesson not as a tedious and hard course, but a fun, brain-developing one.

But what about those controversial games such as shooters and action games? In 2015, WebMD and Business Week reported that a new study published in Current Biology shed some light on the importance of playing action video games in the development of advanced cognitive skills. Scientists found that games like Halo, Call of Duty, League of Legends and other similar ones help people make fast and out of the box decisions.

In action video games, quick and correct problem solving, decision making and strategizing are the winning conditions. Researchers found that people playing Halo and other such games develop an important skill called “probabilistic inference” which is the manner our brain works, reconnects, rewires and uses already stored information in order to make a fast and correct decision. And since our entire adult life revolves around decision making and problem solving, we cannot but agree that a game of Halo or Call of Duty may keep us entertained and push our brains to “think differently” which, in turn, stimulates neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. In the words of the study leader, Dr. C. Shawn Green, “The games are teaching them [players] to learn how to learn, to learn how to solve new tasks rapidly.”

The Teaching Experience

When it comes to mobile app games, things are even simpler. All kids nowadays have a smartphone or a tablet and teachers don’t need to install heavy PC’s and buy video games for the classroom to keep the little ones hooked to problem solving games or creativity stimulating ones.

Many people already know what Lumosity is. This suite of games aims at improving a person's memory, attention, speed, mind flexibility, problem solving and of course logical thinking. The game was designed by neuroscientists specialized in neruplascticity. The app offers more than 40 games, including a quiz game, each with their own level of difficulty. They do not aim to become tedious brain training activities, but rather create a fun and helpful environment.

Games in the Lumosity suite can be chosen depending on children’s age and interests and can be turned into a group game for instance if the kids are too young to play the games individually. A cognitive test such as the Speed Pack is great to challenge visualization skills, while the Robot Factory, based on the go/no-go principles is a great tool for any teacher to test impulse control.

Another interesting game specialized at helping logical thinking is 399 games. Puzzles & Trivia Challenges. The game was created by Nancy Linde, who aimed at improving neurogenesis. As we said above, neurogenesis is a process of creating new brain cells. This is done by always engaging your brain in mental activities that help it find new solutions. So by thinking in broader ways, creating new neural pathways between brain cells and improving memory, neurogenesis is applied in these games. The games aim at improving the six cognitive functions that become affected with aging. Some of the cognitive functions are attention, language and logical thought.

Little Alchemy works great in class, as it is a free game which uses the science of Combinatorics in order to develop kids’ interest in science and push their creativity out of the box. Little Alchemy is a creative sandbox-type of game which challenges the players to combine elements in order to create other elements. While children can successfully obtain “steam” by combining “fire” with “water”, the more they advance into the game, the more mind-blowing the tasks become. This game works both as a test for the teacher to see how children make connections, create, think and solve problems, but also a very powerful educational tool which sparks the love for science and for problem solving. The game can also turn into a competition group game between teams. The first team to get all the 530+ possible Little Alchemy combinations wins. This stimulated collaboration, team work, communication and brainstorming in young children. Of course, the teacher can always keep track of the results by using the official alphabetically ordered Little Alchemy cheats – found on a logo quiz answers online walkthrough – to record every group’s progress.

Critical Thinking Trivia Game is a great addition for a child, teenager or adult to test and improve his logical and critical thinking abilities. Not only does it test how knowledgeable you are, it also tests your memory, intelligence and quiz taking abilities. The questions are timed and it’s imperative to spell the answers correctly to win the points. The more correct answers you provide, the more points you are given. Points can also be taken away if the answers are incorrect. So to answer these tricky questions it is important to think the answers thoroughly. This game especially tests a person's memory, as it makes people recall about things learned a long time ago.

Trivia games, as many other games, can improve a series of skills a person can posses. They are useful in keeping our brains in tip top shape as it goes through the aging process. A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in 2013 suggested that playing video and mobile games can also have a therapeutic impact upon the adults suffering from psychiatric mental disorders. Since video games and mobile games have the role of “rewiring” the brain and stimulate the connectivity between different brain sub-regions, with the formation of new neural networks, they infer that people playing such games may surpass some mental disorders induced by altered or reduced brain areas (Alzheimer’s dementia, schizophrenia, PTSD and so on).

The Future Questions

Going back to teaching and child development, the issue of playing video and mobile games should be seen from another perspective. The question is not if such games have a negative impact on the brain development of a child, as science and teaching practice clearly show that they are beneficial to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. The problem we all should consider, from teachers to parents, and from neuroscientists to game developing companies is “how much is too much.” Video game addiction is a real problem and it shouldn’t be swept under the carpet in the light of the new research. The issue is when we all should draw the line between “playing games for fun and brain development” and “playing games because we are addicted to them.” Neuroscience and educational sciences have still a lot of work to do in this regard.

In conclusion, a person's ability to critically and logically think can help that person in day to day activities at school or work. In other words, these games do not only help us fight off the aging process, but also help us perform better in our daily lives. The fact that more and more practitioners in the medical fields such as neuroscience recommend us these games means that their benefits are not shorthanded. The next logical step would be to find out to which extent we can use video and mobile games in the classroom or home to be beneficial to the child (or adult for that matter) and not push them to fall on the dark side.